Sun 6 May 2012
When Tom Dempsey lined up for a 63-yard field goal on November 8, 1970 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans with two seconds remaining and his Saints trailing the Detroit Lions 17-16, he had already overcome staggering obstacles. Born with a one finger on his right hand and no toes on his right foot, Dempsey may be the most unlikely NFL player ever. Moments later, when his kick slipped over the crossbar, the 23-year-old owned a slice of football immortality.
All told, Dempsey kicked for five teams (Saints, Eagles, Rams, Oilers and Bills) in 11 NFL seasons and was a First Team All Pro in 1969. Born in Milwaukee, WI, he attended Palomar College in San Marcos, CA and currently lives in the New Orleans area. While his record has been equaled twice - Jason Elam of the Broncos in 1998 and Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowksi last season - it has yet to be broken.
The 65-year-old was in Bloomington on Sunday afternoon signing autographs at a sports memorabilia show put on by the Twin Cities Sports Collectors Club. After about an hour of signatures and chatting with anyone would listen, Dempsey took some time to talk to me. While there are some interesting nuggets below, they pale in comparison to the tales the talkative former kicker told to his customers.
DZ: Obviously the (63-yard field goal) has had a tremendous impact on your life, do you ever sit back and wonder what it would’ve been like if you’d missed it?
DEMPSEY: No, I never thought about that….I don’t ever think about that, you just keep your head down and kick it.
DZ: Did you have any idea that the record would last this long?
DEMPSEY: No, I didn’t think it would because the athletes get better. When I came into football in college I played both ways and kicked. The only reason I kicked was because one day in practice - we had a little kicker that couldn’t kick off very well - they lined up the whole team and said “One of you can kick off”. It came my turn, I took off my shoe, kicked it, it went out of bounds (through the end zone) and he said “Do it again” and it went out of bounds and he said, “You’re kicking Saturday night.” And that’s the way it started. I didn’t kick in high school, we had a good kicker. I was an end on the field goal team.
DZ: What do you think of the soccer style versus the old, straight-on kicking?
DEMPSEY: Things get better. They have an advantage because guys like myself, I never got any coaching until I got into the NFL. They have people teach them how to kick and it works for them. They only thing they don’t do very well - of course they play indoors and on the good grass and that stuff nowadays - but, back in the days when we played, you were kicking in the mud and everything.
DZ: Your record was (originally) tied in Denver (by Jason Elam in 1998), where the air is different.
DEMPSEY: I talked to (Elam) when he tied it - the first guy - we talked for awhile. He was a nice kid. When he went to play for the Falcons (in 2008) I said, “I don’t like you anymore.” With the Saints and the Falcons, it wasn’t football, it was a fight.
DZ: Kicking at a small school in college, how did you get noticed by the NFL?
DEMPSEY: In California they didn’t want you to come in as a freshman there, they wanted you to go (junior colleges) and play and then come up (to 4-year schools). You couldn’t play varsity ball at that time (as a freshman). We played every week and they came and scouted us - all the colleges scouted the teams.
DZ: Did you ever go to training camp and get cut or did you go right to the Saints and make the team?
DEMPSEY: Yeah, (I went to camp with) the Chargers and they decided I wasn’t going to be there and their coach (Hall of Famer Sid Gillman) helped me get picked up by the Saints. He was a great guy.
DZ: How much contact do you have with the Saints organization today?
DEMPSEY: Their owner (Tom Benson) likes me sometimes, but he doesn’t like me some other times, so that’s OK.
DZ: Do you go to a lot of games in the Superdome?
DEMPSEY: No, I either watch in my house or I go to a bar down in the (French) Quarter (he was at the NFC Championship Game vs. the Vikings however).
DZ: You played four sports in high school, was football always your favorite?
DEMPSEY: Yeah, I loved football from the first time I played it.
DZ: Did you ever think you’d end up being a kicker?
DEMPSEY: No, I touched the ball once in high school…I played offensive line and defensive end. I only recovered one fumble, I forced a lot, but only recovered one.
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